Some of the best players in the Premier Hockey Federation gathered in Buffalo, New York for the league's All-Star Showcase on January 29. Team Dempsey, led by Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey, won the showcase, while Toronto Six netminder Elaine Chuli was named MVP.
The showcase was moved to Buffalo from Toronto due to COVID-related restrictions in Ontario. Eight Beauts players were selected, including four via fan vote.
"It was such a privilege to have it here in Buffalo, and to be in front of our fans but also just be in our home rink," said Beauts goaltender Carly Jackson. "I just love it here. To be able to celebrate that, it was just extra special. Being a part of it has been first-class from top to bottom."
The format of this year's All-Star Showcase was unlike any other. Each team played two games; each game featured 10 minutes of 5-on-5, followed by five minutes of 3-on-3 and a five-round shootout. All goals scored counted toward the team total.
"It made it really exciting," said honorary coach Sami Jo Small. "What was extra exciting was the fact that it really came down to that final game. I love that format; I love that the players got to feel each other out a little bit, 5-on-5, and then 3-on-3 was wide open, and then the shootout."
Particularly impressive – as expected – were players like Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Jonna Curtis, and Allie Thunstrom. All three All-Star teams finished the showcase with a 1-1 record, but Team Dempsey's goal differential was the difference-maker. Overall, players seemed to enjoy the format, although some said that they would've liked more time to skate with their teammates. Some felt like they'd just gotten into the swing of things, and then their game was over.
In the future, hopefully the PHF will make its jersey designs more distinct, as some players said they were confused and sometimes mistook their opponents for teammates, particularly during the game between Teams Darkangelo & Thunstrom.
One of the most entertaining moments of the evening came when Jackson took over for teammate Cassidy Vinkle in the shootout. Jackson, sporting a Beauts Vinkle jersey, took the shot — in full goalie gear – and scored on Katie Burt.
One component of a traditional All-Star Showcase that was missing: a skills competition. While there was fan demand for a skills showcase, some players didn't seem to mind its absence.
"You know, I'm okay without it," said Minnesota Whitecaps forward Allie Thunstrom. "I don't have the hardest shot; I would make everybody else with a hard shot look really good, like 33 miles an hour." Thunstrom laughed and added: "If people want it, I'm all here for it, but I did enjoy the format as it was."
The overarching theme of the showcase seemed to be the friendships players were able to build, and how they enjoyed conversing and playing with those they wouldn't normally be on the ice with. College teammates reunited; college rivals played together; and current PHF teammates faced off.
"You get to really know people a little bit better. People learn that I'm not the same person off the ice as I am on the ice," said Metropolitan Riveters captain Madison Packer. "You get to really know people and learn different stories... We always like to win, but it's more about celebrating people's successes to this point, and it's fun to play with the best of the best."
Packer spoke about how she got to know several Toronto Six players well, and how she and Emma Woods exchanged stories about young kids in their families. Woods' nephew and Packer's son are close in age.
Beauts goaltender Carly Jackson was a designated emergency back-up and got to spend time with all three teams. She said it was a joy to be able to interact with all of the players, many of whom she'd played either or with or against at some point, whether as teenagers or in college.
"It's always an enjoyable experience, to be able to compete with and against the best players in the league," said Jillian Dempsey. "You just try to go out there, have fun, work hard and form some friendships with players on other teams. It's just a different experience. It's nice to take a break from the usual and enjoy that."
Sami Jo Small Soundbites
It's no surprise that Sami Jo Small had a lot to say about women's hockey in general. Here are some highlights from her post-game media availability:
- "I had just done the PWHPA game on Sportsnet, and I felt like if I was supporting that side of the 'fence,' that I wanted to support these guys as well. When [Lisa Haley] asked me and indicated that Mel Davidson and Meghan Chayka were involved as well, it took a quick conversation with my husband. He could see the excitement in my eyes to just be around hockey again, and he's said, it's a no-brainer... It's not about taking sides or solving the world. It's about really enjoying the game and being out there with these players that are doing so much for advancing women's hockey."
- on getting to be a coach
- "In women's hockey, we have so much talent, and we have so many incredible people in the game that are doing such amazing things. Any time I get to be around it, it's just special, whether it's in a coaching role, in a management role or just even as a fan."
- on celebrating some of the talent in North America
- "Sometimes it's just the luck of the draw. Any one of these players that played today, if given different circumstances, could have been on the ice in Beijing. That's how close it is in women's hockey, and that's how good these players are. I really, truly believe that."
- on the talent level in the PHF
Two Beauts players, Marie-Jo Pelletier and Autumn MacDougall, had to miss the event due to COVID-19 protocols. Boston Pride defender Amanda Boulier arrived late, missing her team's first game, due to travel delays.
Saturday's event mostly went off without a hitch, and I give everyone credit for being able to pick up the event and move it from Toronto to Buffalo in a hurry. It was definitely a little chaotic at times, and at least some of that can probably be chalked up to the late relocation. Not everyone seemed clear on the game formats, if the ice would be cleared between games, or what to do when a game ended.
At one point, players and officials were ready to drop the puck and had to be waved off because a media timeout was still in effect. During the shootout, shooters were picked last-minute, which left everyone scrambling to figure out who was going next in the split-second before the whistle blew to start the play. Having three teams meant one team was often squashed into a small hallway area watching the on-ice action.
The last thing I have to mention is how league COVID-19 protocols were followed, or sometimes... not. Interaction between players and the general public was plentiful, from the rink lobby to the stands. Players were photographed sitting in the stands, surrounded by fans, watching the other games. While it is understandably challenging given the sheer number of players (and sheer lack of PHF employees and rink staff/security), hopefully there won't be any negative after-effects of such relaxed enforcements.
The Premier Hockey Federation returns to regular season action this coming weekend. The Boston Pride will host the Connecticut Whale (Saturday at 7:00 PM and Sunday at 1:00 PM Eastern) while the Minnesota Whitecaps host the Buffalo Beauts (Saturday at 7:00 PM and Sunday at 12:00 PM Central).
The Toronto Six and Metropolitan Riveters are off this weekend.
(Photo: Michelle Jay/PHF)